After refusing in the past even to acknowledge the existence of memos offering a legal basis for targeting American citizens who’ve become Al Qaeda leaders, the Obama administration on Thursday agreed to show these documents to members of the congressional intelligence committees. It’s a positive step, but doesn’t go far enough. The administration owes the public a broader explanation of the legal theories behind drone attacks on Americans who have joined Al Qaeda, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who was killed in 2011.
The attacks have become a topic of concern surrounding President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, to head the CIA. Earlier this week, NBC obtained an administration “white paper” outlining its procedures for targeting American citizens who have become “high level” Al Qaeda officials. The paper states that the CIA can strike only if “an informed, high-level official” decides the citizen poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”
The paper raised alarms among civil libertarians and prompted calls from Congress for the full Justice Department memos, so lawmakers can determine whether the policy comports with US and international law. The focus of the American Civil Liberties Union’s objections was the elastic standard for determining what constitutes an “imminent” threat: The target must be a high-level Al Qaeda leader, but need not be actively engaged in a terrorist attack.
The ACLU is certainly justified in seeking clarity, both over the procedures and their legal basis. Targeting American citizens, even those linked to Al Qaeda, should be the product of a careful system, with checks and balances, that comes into use only in cases involving a serious threat to national security.
But despite those concerns, there are reasons to define an imminent threat in ways that involve some measure of subjective judgment. The nature of Al Qaeda’s war against the United States offers, in itself, a demonstration of how threats need not yet be operational to present a serious risk to American lives. Awlaki was a relentless propagandist who is said to have actively recruited others to launch deadly attacks, including the 2005 London bombings and the foiled 2007 plot against Fort Dix, N.J. Other senior Al Qaeda figures, US intelligence believes, are engaged in developing new types of weapons that can evade airline security and bring down jetliners. Given that opportunities to target such figures are few and far between, waiting until their operatives go into action is impractical. Nonetheless, their intent to strike at the United States must be clear before any US officials launch a drone attack.
There is little evidence that Awlaki or any other American was incorrectly targeted. But the administration’s secrecy is a problem in itself. Americans need to be told which principles guide these drone attacks. The White House, and the Justice Department, need to provide a fuller accounting of the drone program.